Close to Home:
It had been a good morning, as far Liturgy was concerned. Amazingly, I heard a great deal of the service and now as we began to prepare for the Eucharist I closed my eyes to recite the pre-communion prayer. Beside me (or more accurately, leaning up against me) was six-year-old Priscilla who kept wriggling her shoulder blades to remind my hand why exactly it was resting upon her flawless skin. “Tickle my back mama,” she pleaded for the tenth time in the past hour - exactly like I used to ask my own mother to do while sitting in the wooden pews of our Bible church.
“I believe, O Lord, and I confess…” we all began, the whole shivering lot of us who had braved the freezing elements to make sense of our separate yet inextricably linked lives by partaking of the body and blood of Christ Jesus. I assumed she wasn’t interested in the words that every Sunday cut straight through the irrelevant drivel vying desperately for my undivided attention, but children are usually listening most when you least expect them to.
“…Of thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom.”
“What does that mean?” whispered Priscilla, her exaggeratedly hushed tone as inconspicuous as a passing garbage truck.
“Shh!” was my instinctive response until I realized that her interruption was valid, an honest to goodness inquiry into an element of our Faith as opposed to a third request to go downstairs and use the restroom. “What does what mean?” I quickly added, modeling with my own voice a more appropriate volume.
“Neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss,” my daughter clarified.
“Shame on me,” I thought, had I really never explained that to her before?
Swiftly, I delivered the abbreviated version into my right hand cupped tightly around her ear: Trust. Betrayal. Kiss. Death. I spoke hurriedly and without inflection. But the sheer unfairness of it all needn’t of have been dramatized or embellished for Priscilla’s sake. The cold straight facts were enough to get her steaming. She whipped her face around to meet my gaze - eyes steely, lips pursed, forehead wrinkled. I felt pressure to mirror her revolted expression but the righteous indignation necessary for making it look authentic quite simply wasn’t there at my disposal. “He hung himself out of shame,” I told her finally, to let her know that Judas felt bad in the end - really, horribly bad about his actions.
“Good,” said Priscilla, and she meant it.
I wasn’t always this placid, so unperturbed by Biblical accounts of sacrifice, injustice, crucifixion. Time and repetition played their part to dull my astonishment, like a scar makes numb the initial stinging pangs of bodily violence. At five-years-old I was removed from a pre-release screening of “The Jesus Film.” A guilty verdict passed down upon the innocent was just more than I could process at that age. “Crucify Him! Free Barabbas!” they yelled, and I hated that condemning mob - so much so that I shouted right back at them. “Don’t do this!” I hysterically protested, in the midst of a crowded theater. “Stop it! You can’t! I won’t let you kill my Jesus!”
Every Holy Week the death of Christ is solemnly and reverently commemorated. At the Holy Friday service I will ponder, and even shed tears over, such an agonizing and unfathomable act of mercy. But it is highly unlikely I’ll become so engrossed in His suffering that I lose all control of my faculties, that I’ll make a public spectacle of myself on behalf of Christ. I did feel the heat, however, off my daughter’s fiery earnestness, and for the first time in a long time the profoundness of the incarnation undeniably singed my soul; her curiosity sparked a wondering of my own: How could a person having been that close to Jesus, having witnessed firsthand both His glory and humility, having seen Him heal the sick and feed the poor, have turned against Him over something so transitory as money? How could, or for that matter, how can the Son of God allow Himself to be so utterly disrespected by His own creation?
Jesus did not resist the soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus did not call down the powers of Heaven to alleviate the afflictions of His torture. Jesus did not establish an earthly kingdom. Jesus doesn’t force us to worship, to emulate, to adore Him. “Well where’s the greatness in that?” any honest child will question. “Well where’s the greatness in that?” this worn and weathered adult hasn’t even thought to ask, or meditate upon, in ages. What is so significant (now with Christmas fast approaching) about a baby and a stable and virgin mother and some shepherds? Why should the quality of my life be enhanced because of this Feast? At the Matins of Nativity, as in every Orthodox service, we sing hymns packed tightly with theology and you if you listen, really listen, they’ll blow your mind:
How is He contained in a womb
Whom nothing can contain?
How can He be held in the arms of His mother
Who remains forever in the bosom of His Father?
It is according to His good will,
As He knows and as He desires!
For being without flesh,
He of His own good will has been made flesh;
And He Who Is has for our sake become what He was not.
From His birth to death to Resurrection, Christ’s message was immaculately consistent. Every controversial move he made, or refused to make, while on earth fell in line with a mission of love, as a means to salvation. Love over comfort. Love over power. Love over vengeance and pride. Love over zealousness. Love most victorious over mortality, poverty, and degradation. Love perfected through self-restraint. Love first revealed in the most humble of circumstances to the most ordinary of human beings – like us, if only we were searching as intently as they were then for a savior. If only the news of His birth hadn’t become so commonplace, so watered down, such a sentimental excuse for having a party.
God is with us! Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us! said the holy prophet Isaiah; that, dear Priscilla, is the very pertinent message I long for us to absorb as a family this holiday season. That is a Truth worth getting all worked up over, for Love destroying death is the ultimate in significance. So inspire me with your illimitable devotion. Infect me with your contagious enthrallment. God became man now how I will I respond? For your sakes, may my reaction be bold, unmistakable, and enduring; for my sake may it be genuine and courageous. Let those of us who have hung all our hope on the cross listen awe struck to the angel’s announcement, dirty our knees prostrating reverently before the manger, and then run - impulsively sharing the miraculousness of the Gospel with everyone we meet along the way, making public spectacles of ourselves out of joy, out of Christ sanctioned love, unashamedly overcome by a renewed and child like wonder. “Christ is Born!” we must continually proclaim like we mean it, “Glorify Him!”
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